WASHINGTON – The US Army is considering how multi-component units might help it achieve greater capability as the force shrinks in a time of budget austerity and has, for the first time, implemented such a structure within its fixed-wing aviation branch for the first time.

The pilot program took shape at the same time a commission tasked with examining the future force structure of the US Army was also deeply examining possible ways to make greater use of multi-component units, made of both full-time troops and reservists.The service began implementing the plan in October, attaching a small group of active and rReserve pilots to already existing fixed-wing aerial exploitation battalions at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia.

The Ccongressionally established National Commission on the Future of the Army comes out with its report Thursday. The commission looked at a number of alternative approaches, such as the Air Force’s rReserve-associate concept that has rReserve components and the regular Air Force sharing equipment.

The Air Force-inspired associate unit concept is the model the Army is using to form its fixed-wing aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance multi-component units.

"We over the past 14 years have had a significantly high demand for our aerial ISR platforms, in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, that has placed a strain on the system," Col. John Lindsay, the director for Army aviation in the service's operations, plans and policy arm, told Defense News in a recent interview.

"We have been able to meet all requirements as defined by the combatant commanders but we've had to tap into the pool of pilots that are associated with the operational airlift mission," he said. "So we are borrowing those guys in order to fly the other platforms."

The Army's two major manned, fixed-wing missions are operational airlift and ISR. The Army has nearly 150 operational airlift aircraft around the world, but far fewer ISR aircraft.

Due to studies suggesting the Army had too much operational support airlift capacity and the fact that the "vast majority" of the pilots flying aircraft for this mission resided in the rReserve component, the service decided to pool pilots from both the active and rReserve components that would be able to fly ISR aircraft when needed.

Pooling pilots to fly a small number of high-demand aircraft is helping to re-balance the force structure and meet the near constant need in theater, according to Lindsay.

The associate unit "allows you to increase capability without increasing numbers of aircraft or equipment, you are basically concentrating your assets, your pilots," Lt. Col. Jim Willson, Army fixed-wing requirements officer, said.

The formation of the associate unit should likely result in cost-savings and will feed the insatiable appetite for aerial ISR while creating better synergy between the active and rReserve components, Willson added.

But while the fixed-wing associate unit is working for the Army, applying multi-component structures across the force may not make as much sense in some cases.

Fixed-wing platforms tend to serve a mission in terms of single airplanes or pairs, but rotary-wing aircraft can function collectively in groups of eight to 24 aircraft at a time, in certain cases, Lindsay said. "So the idea of an associate unit in support of a battalion that could be pulled away and take all the assets with it leaving an associate unit with nothing to train on, that is a challenge," he said.

But multi-component units are something the Army will consider more and more "in the time of constrained resources," Lindsay said.

"The guidance and direction that we've gotten from senior Army leadership is to look at various approaches to improving our capability and readiness," he said. "If considering multi-component options at various levels make sense then I think that will be carefully considered."

Maj. Gen. Michael Lundy, the Army Aviation Center of Excellence commander at Fort Rucker, Alabama, told Defense News at a recent Association of the US Army aviation forum,"When you think about units that don't have to collectively operate together ... the complexity of training them is less," and therefore multi-component units are easier to incorporate into the framework.

With the fixed-wing ISR associate unit, the Army is "double-manning because we weren't aircraft limited, we were crew limited" and so the service doubled the crews, Lundy said. "Those are the kind of units, clearly, that are going to be the ones we are going to look at from a multi-compo perspective and I think there is a great benefit doing that," he said.

But, "when you start thinking about assault helicopter units or attack units — cavalry squadrons — that have to train and fight collectively, those become much more difficult to do multi-compo," Lundy said.

There are some examples within the rotary-wing fleet that could adopt a multi-component structure, according Lundy. For instance, general support aviation battalions or medical evacuation units could support such a formation because of how they conduct missions.

Medevac units go out on missions in platoons of three helicopters, he said, so, for example, "we could have, in a 15-ship medevac company, three of them active and one of them Guard or flip that around."

Air traffic services is another area like air traffic services companies would be well-served as multi-component units as the rReserve force’s air traffic controller skill-set is often stronger because controllers have experience working at high-traffic, civilian airfields.

Training is also an issue because the active and rReserve components churn at different rates. "It’s becoming more challenging for us to synchronize and get units lined up where they deploy together, at least close enough together, where they can train together," Lundy said.

Even so, Lundy noted multi-components do work in some cases and have worked well for the Army in the past. Two multi-component units are deployed: An active combat aviation brigade in Afghanistan with National Guard units attached and a National Guard CAB in Iraq and Kuwait with active units attached.

"When you think about peacetime or home station that is a whole different animal and there is a host of challenges," he said.

"There are still challenges in mixing units from other organizations but I think overall, across the branch, we've done a phenomenal job of deploying multi-compo units," Lundy said.

Twitter: @JenJudson